[Canoeing picture credit to Robert Schwemmer]
From the 1500s to the early 1800s, Spanish explorers, priests, soldiers, and settlers laid claim to much of Alta California and replaced thousands of Indigenous geographic placenames with Spanish names that still dominate the landscape today. For the descendants of the First Californians, the ubiquity of non-Native placenames is a constant reminder that their lands and important parts of their heritage were stolen from them without compensation. These include seven of California’s eight Channel Islands, which still bear the names of Catholic saints or relics, despite being occupied for millennia by Chumash and Tongva peoples.
In November 2021, Chumash representatives, Quntan Shup Garcia (Southern Owl Clan, Chumash), John Thothokanayoh Ruiz (Southern Owl Clan, Chumash), Brian Holguin (Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, PhD student at University of California, Santa Barbara), Alan Salazar (Chumash/Tataviam), Gilbert Unzueta (Barbareǹo Band of Chumash Indians), Matthew Vestuto (Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians), and five non-Native California anthropologists (co-authors Jon Erlandson and Kristina Gill, Torben Rick (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), and Lynn Gamble (University of California, Santa Barbara) officially petitioned California’s State Historical Resources Commission (SHRC) and the Office of Historic Preservation, requesting that the state of California formally change the names of the four Northern Channel Islands back to the names used by Chumash people for millennia. California SHRC member René Vellanoweth of California State University, Los Angeles conveyed the petition to Julianne Polanco, California’s State Historic Preservation Officer who chairs the SHRC. The original petition, under the heading “Renaming the Northern Channel Islands: Honoring Indigenous Ancestors,” included the following statement:
“California’s cultural landscape—especially within the areas colonized by Spanish missions, presidios, and pueblos in the 18 th and 19 th centuries—is dominated by Spanish placenames, many of them named for Catholic saints or rituals. This is true for three of the four Northern Channel Islands—San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz which were named by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino after he sailed briefly through the Santa Barbara Channel in AD 1602-03. In contrast, the Chumash people and their ancestors lived on the Northern Channel Islands for at least 13,000 years and thousands of Chumash descendants still live in California today. The Chumash knew the islands, from east-to-west as ‘Anyapax (“mirage”), Limuw (“in the sea”), Wima (“redwood/driftwood”), and Tuqan (meaning unknown). Today only Anacapa retains an anglicized version of its Chumash name. We propose that the State of California honor the Chumash—one of the most populous and culturally complex hunter-gatherer-fisher societies in world history—by officially replacing the names of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands with their Chumash names. Like [the mountain of] Denali, once named for a US President (William McKinley) who never visited Alaska, we hope the federal government will one day follow suit.”
A second petition was submitted to the Channel Islands National Park by the Barbareño Chumash Tribal Council (BCTC) and the federally-recognized Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, supporting the proposed name changes.
–Deana Dartt, PhD (Coastal Band Chumash), Jon Erlandson, PhD, and Kristina Gill, PhD
Sign the Petition
Your signatures will be seen by: the California’s State Historical Resources Commission, the California Native American Heritage Commission, Charles “Chuck” Sams III (Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indians), who is the Native American Director of the National Park Service, and Debra Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), who is the Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior.
We seek widespread support and hope the readers of News from Native California will help spread the word and sign the petition. It is time to honor California’s deep Indigenous history by replacing some of the colonial placenames that dominate our state.